Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Popular v Formal

I'm finding at the moment that I'm becoming interested in the interaction between popular faith and religious centres in the Middle Ages, but I have also noticed that something of a split seems to exist in the historiography. With the possible exception of Arnold's Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (which admittedly might have done the whole thing so thoroughly that others don't dare) people seem to either do 'popular' faith in the period, or institutional history, without the two necessarily connecting.

That intrigues me, because it seems that there are potential difficulties if it is the case, and I haven't just missed the relevant literature. Doesn't it risk ignoring the role of extensive official religious mechanisms in influencing popular faith on the one hand, while treating the institutions in too secular a fashion on the other?

The interactions between large institutions and the towns and people around them can be fascinating, not least because of the ways they altered and shifted. In Beverley, the minster had to compete with the growth of numerous smaller institutions, and with the expansion of monastic houses there that occasionally strayed into liturgical areas, as its 1309 dispute with the Dominican Friars there over them offering Mass suggests.

What I'm saying is that these interactions are interesting, and that they're easy to miss sometimes. Particularly if we get so caught up in the popular religion of the Middle Ages that we ignore the formal sort. Well, actually, what I'm saying is that I've found a new angle to run with for a bit now that I've done the institutional history, but you get the idea.


Bavardess said...

I agree with you that the sharp distinction between 'popular' and 'institutional' religion is somewhat false, especially once you get beyond the Church's administrative and institutional functions and get more into beliefs and ideologies. I think there is a lot more cross-pollination and intertwining than is portrayed in many histories of medieval religion (at least in the English context, which is what I'm most familiar with). I've been running up against this myself a bit lately while looking at the issue of political prophesies & prophets, where popular beliefs get completely mixed up with high politics and the formal institutions of church and state.

stu said...

Yes, and I suspect the popular/formal confusion there must be made worse with the tendency for the recording of the popular prophecies to be done by those involved in the more formal aspects, though I must admit I know visions of the afterlife better than prophecies generally.